May 31, 2003 | Op-ed

The Real Roots of Islamic Extremism

By Stephen Schwartz

The victimized terrorists are variously thought to be directing their anger against Western-induced poverty; the Western-supported rise of Israel; or the Western imperialism that displaced the Ottoman Empire.

Many writers cite the unarguably tragic fate of Palestinian refugees after the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 as the motive for acts of terrorism against civilians in Israel and elsewhere, including New York and Washington. And Islamic extremism is alleged to be a product of poverty and hopelessness in the Arab world, which are in turn blamed on U.S. hegemony and capitalist globalization. Similarly, opponents of the war in Iraq told us that military action to remove Saddam Hussein would further aggravate Arab and Muslim frustrations, spawning more suicide terror.

However, certain persistent facts undermine these claims. To begin with, no Palestinians participated in the attacks of September 11. Apart from the ideological godfather of Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzamm, who was killed in Pakistan in 1989, few people from Palestine or Jordan have joined al-Qaida. And Azzam himself turned to “Islamist” extremism in disgust with the Marxist, class-driven ideology of Yasir Arafat, al- Fatah, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Fifteen of the 19 terrorists who inflicted the horrors of September 11 were subjects of Saudi Arabia. They did not grow up in refugee camps, and they did not face poverty or deprivation. Of the 9/11 terrorists:

Wael Muhammad al-Shehri, age 25, was a physical education teacher at an elementary school in the Kamis Mushayat airbase in Saudi Arabia.
Waleed al-Shehri, 21, was a dropout from a teachers' college. His brothers include professional officers in the Saudi military, including an Air Force pilot.
Abd' al-Aziz Abd' al-Rahman Al-Omari, 23, was a graduate of Imam Muhammad Bin Sa'ud University, a prestigious religious institution in Saudi Arabia, and was a disciple of a senior Saudi cleric.
Fa'iz Muhammad al-Shehri was an employee of an official Saudi relief agency.
Mohned Muhammad Al-Shehri, 24, was a student at Imam Muhammad Bin Sa'ud University.
Hamza Saleh al-Ghamdi, 21, traveled extensively in Pakistan and Afghanistan, using his family's money, before coming to the United States.
Ahmed Ibrahim al-Haznawi al-Ghamdi, 24, was the son of a leading imam, or mosque leader.
Ahmed Abd' Allah al-Nami, 23, was also a student at Imam Muhammad Bin Sa'ud University.
Majid Mishaan Moqed al-Qufi al-Harbi, 22, was a student at the elite King Sa'ud University in Riyadh.
Hani Saleh Hassan Hanjour was a pilot for Emirates Airlines, headquartered in the United Arab Emirates. His father was a military contractor.
Satam M. A. al-Suqumi, 24, was also a student at King Sa'ud University in Riyadh.
None of these terrorists was a product of humiliation or deprivation of any kind.

But even if Palestinians were not directly involved in September 11, many of them support the terror campaigns of the Fatah al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Are they not victims of Israel? Do they not suffer in wretchedness, cooped up in camps? In reality, the answer is No, for three reasons.

First, most of the Palestinian supporters of terror are no longer refugees; they are the children and grandchildren of the refugees of 1948. They are not people who fled or were driven from their homes, with little or no preparation for beginning a new life. Rather, they are young people with the energy, and in many cases the schooling, to improve their situation by entering the thriving Israeli economy or by finding new opportunities outside Israel. Many have benefited from an educational system established and paid for by Israel, and many have studied in the best Israeli universities.

Second, the humiliation of Palestinian refugees is now a matter of history and legend rather than of personal experience. Thousands of Israeli Arabs, Bedouin, and Druze citizens have served in the Israeli armed forces.

The tribulations suffered by the original Palestinian refugees were accutely aggravated by the unwillingness of neighboring Arab countries to assist them, and by the even-worse failures of the United Nations. For corrupt Arab states as well as for the UN, it was easier to leave the Palestinians living in camps than to offer them economic opportunities or other means to improve their situation.

Had the Palestinians of 1948 left the camps and reestablished themselves in neighboring countries, they would today constitute a prosperous elite. For many Arab states, however, that would have been inconvenient. Third and finally, there are no refugee camps today, in the sense of people living in tents without facilities. All of the so-called camps are now towns with houses, electric power, water, and other services. The so-called “refugee camp” at Jenin, which attracted much attention last year, is in fact a city with streets, houses, and mosques.

There is another aspect of Arab and Muslim life in Israel and the occupied territories that goes unmentioned in the Western media: Israel does not interfere with the Muslim religion. It does not prevent the call to prayer from being heard, nor does it obstruct the teaching and practice of Islam. Under the tenets of traditional Islam, therefore, Muslims should not object to being citizens of Israel. Recognition of this fact was the basis for granting full citizenship to Israeli Arabs, and it is also the foundation of Arab participation in Israeli elections. Israeli Arabs have the right to elect their representatives freely — a right uniformly absent from the rest of the Arab world.

Palestinian terrorism exists because it is in the interest of corrupt and oppressive regimes — mainly Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but also Syria — for it to exist. The Palestinian cause diverts the attention of Arabs living under tyrannical misrule from protest against their own governments. While Israel's leaders may be worthy of criticism, they are not alone in responsibility for Palestinian anger. The rise of Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist Islamist movement, was in great part stimulated by the Palestinians' disgust with the extortion, torture, murder, censorship, and other abuses afflicted on them by Yasir Arafat.


What, then, of the claim that “Muslim rage” is fueled by resentment over the decline of Islamic civilization and the fall of the Ottoman caliphate in the face of Western imperialism? Here again, we should examine some basic facts that go unmentioned in the Western media.

The problems of Muslim civilization include 200 years of domination by foreign states. From 1750 to 1950, the major and minor European powers ruled over Arab and Muslim lands. Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, and Italy carved up the African Muslim dominions. Britain, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, Italy, France, and Russia sliced pieces off the Ottoman empire, with Britain and France subdividing the Middle East. Britain further subjugated the Indian Ocean coasts of the Arabian peninsula, along with the vast Muslim populations of the Indian subcontinent and Malaya. Portugal and France also controlled enclaves in India with Muslim populations. The Portuguese and Dutch ruled with great cruelty in Indonesia. The United States took over the Philippines, with a substantial Muslim population, from Spain. Japan seized Formosa, now Taiwan, which had long had Muslim residents. Russia conquered vast tracts of the northern coast of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

For two centuries, the global community of Muslims outside of Persia (now Iran), the Ottoman Empire, and central Arabia lived under non-Muslim rule. Yet except for occasional incidents in which foreign imperialists acted with exceptional violence or incompetence – including the Spanish and French in North Africa, the British in India and Sudan, the Christian states in the Balkans, the United States in the Philippines, and the Russians in general – non-Muslim domination seldom led to jihad, or military combat against the invaders. Britain established a pattern in India: the imperialists respected local Muslim elites and religious rights, and Muslims generally accepted their governance.

When the greatest jihad leaders of the nineteenth century, Abd' al-Kader al-Jazairi in Algeria and Imam Shamyl in the Caucasus, launched wars against the French and Russians respectively, they maintained iron rules of protection for Jews as well as for Christian noncombatants. In Algeria, for example, which had large Jewish and Christian civil communities, Abd'al-Kader al-Jazairi made sheltering non-Muslims uninvolved in the struggle the keystone of his jihad. And after his surrender to the French, al-Jazairi went to Syria, where he acted to prevent Muslim violence against Christians.

The principled jihads of al-Jazairi and Imam Shamyl, who remain legendary heroes to Muslims everywhere, contrast brusquely with the heartless terrorism of Osama bin Laden. But the fact that Muslims facing humiliation and even the threat of genocide do not automatically turn to extremism and terrorism is most dramatically illustrated by the recent history of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the war that savaged that country in the 1990s, thousands of Muslim women and girls were raped, hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered, at least half a million became refugees, and 2,000 mosques were destroyed by Serbian forces. Yet the Bosnian Muslims never turned to terrorism, nor even to an extremist form of Islam. Not one Christian church or Jewish synagogue was attacked in the Bosnian Muslim zone. The Bosnian Muslims looked the same and spoke the same language as their Serb foes; had they wished to carry a terror war deep into Serbia, it would have been absurdly easy. The Bosnian Muslims, like Abd' al-Kader al-Jazairi and Imam Shamyl, strictly distinguished between combatants and noncombatants.


It is true that humiliation and oppression feed Arabs' and Muslims' rage, but their oppression and humiliation do not originate primarily in Western dominance or Israeli aggression. Algeria defeated France in the independence war of the 1950s and 1960s, and has since experienced no sense of humiliation by the West; indeed, the Algerians have every right to be proud of their triumph over colonialism. Yet Algeria was wracked by Islamist terrorism in the 1990s. How can this phenomenon be traced to Western evils?

Those who argue that Islamist extremism is a product of American support for corrupt regimes have a point. But they overlook the main source of ideology, incitement, and funds for Islamist terror: the government of Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the Saudi kingdom now try to confuse Western opinion by proclaiming that they, too, are targets of Osama bin Laden, to mask their own complicity in his financing and organization. In reality, Islamist terrorism is only in part a protest movement by Saudi subjects such as Osama bin Laden who are aggrieved at the monarchy's alliance with the West. It is, in much greater part, a phenomenon directly controlled by the Saudi authorities.

Saudi Arabia is not some ineffably mysterious, ancient, and traditional society that we must approach reluctantly, with extreme caution, and at arm's length – especially when discussing the need for political change there. And political change there probably would not involve a shift to a more extreme Islamist regime.

Saudi Arabia may be the worst example in modern times of a corrupt and reactionary absolute monarchy whose rulers have great difficulty perceiving the depth of the crisis that faces them, as well as the way out of the crisis.

The Saudi royal family can no longer rule in the old way; and its subjects, with a growing youthful majority, increasingly refuse to live in the old way. There is nothing mysterious or novel about this. The same problem characterized the regime of the Shah of Iran, who was overthrown in 1979 by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini Nor does Saudi Arabia represent anything ancient or traditional. Saudi Arabia is ruled by an alliance of the Wahhabi sect, the official Islamic dispensation in the kingdom, with the house of Sa'ud. This alliance, which created the monarchy, is only 250 years old. And Wahhabi Islam is not traditional Islam. It is an extremely destructive, nihilistic, and radical form of Islam.

Wahhabism preaches an ultra-Puritanical way of life. Meanwhile the Saudi elite swims in whisky. Wahhabism claims to be the purest form of Islam, while the Saudi monarchy depends on secular bayonets for its protection. These mixed signals, or, more bluntly, these forms of hypocrisy, have a deranging effect on Saudi society. But they are also the essential source of Islamist extremism and terrorism.

To close the gap between Wahhabi blandishments and Saudi reality, and in a desperate attempt to recover their credibility — particularly in the 20 years since the emergence of Khomeini in Iran — the reactionary faction of the Saudi monarchy has financed terrorism and infiltration in Central Asia, Pakistan, Kashmir, the Balkans, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, the Philippines, Indonesia, and, finally, in the ultimate form of al-Qaida.

Yet Saudi Arabia has never been humiliated by the West. Rather, its rulers have been pampered, coddled, and bribed by the West. Its dependence on military support from the United States, the pretext for Qaida terrorism against Americans, is hardly new. Over its two-and-a-half centuries of existence, Wahhabism has always depended on its alliances with Western powers — Britain, France, and now the United States — to protect its rule in the Arabian peninsula. At the same time, to its own population, the Wahhabist regime preaches a toxic mixture of ferocious separatism, exclusionism, and violence directed against non-Wahhabi Muslims and non-Muslims. Its dependence on American aid has led gullible policy experts in the West to view the Wahhabi faction around King Fahd and princes Sultan and Nayef as allies, and to stigmatize all opponents of the regime as extremists.

Far from being extremists, however, dissident Muslims under Saudi rule generally call for religious liberty – to accommodate Arab Christians now underground, the many thousands of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist guest workers in the kingdom, and foreign Christian and Jewish visitors. While the right of Christian proselytism would doubtless remain restricted under their rule, these Muslim traditionalists see no justification for preventing Christians from worshipping. The Saudi government falsely claims that the exclusion of non-Muslim religious rituals in the Arabian Peninsula reflects Islamic tradition.

But even Qatar, the only other Wahhabi state, has authorized the construction of new Christian churches—of which there are many in Bahrein, where Jews and Hindus also flourish. There is a Hindu temple in Oman. Even non-extremist Saudi subjects experience politically induced hopelessness and frustration. But their resentment does not flow from abject poverty. Saudi Arabia faces great discontent among its populace. But this discontent does not reflect a desire, except among the clerical bureaucracy and the Wahhabi faction of the royal family, for Wahhabism to be maintained or reinforced. The vast majority of Saudi subjects are restive because of three factors.

First, Shi'a Muslims in the Eastern Province and southern region are tired of the violent discrimination they have suffered at the hands of the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance. These Shi'as are not prone to Islamist extremism.

Second, two generations of Saudi subjects are educated and entrepreneurial. They know how the real world works, have access to satellite television and the Internet, and are tired of their ambitions being blocked by the corrupt and sclerotic Saudi system. They want to live in a modern society, such as would most resemble Malaysia — a constitutional and parliamentary Islamic monarchy.

Third, and most significantly, non-Wahhabi Islamic scholars, especially in Hejaz (the region of Mecca and Medina), seek the restoration of theological pluralism.

Addressing these three sources of discontent does not entail a bloody civil war any more than it must lead to an extremist Saudi state. There is sufficient possibility for a managed transition to a Malaysian model. Like King Juan Carlos in Spain, a member of the royal family such as Crown Prince Abdullah could sever the links between the monarchy and Wahhabi ideology. Like the Windsors in Britain, the Saudi royal family could retain its wealth and even its symbolic status at the head of the state, but without actually ruling the country. The Malaysian model could, in these ways, emerge as the best alternative for Saudi Arabia.


There is no reason to believe that such a regime would reflect a more extreme Islamist position. None of the elements that led to the establishment of the Khomeini regime in Iran are present in Saudi Arabia. Unlike the Iranian revolutionaries, the Wahhabis do not have a record of real opposition to the state, nor do they have a tradition of collective action or of political sophistication in the management of crises, or even in the exploitation of political opportunities that appear in times of crisis. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has produced no unifying, charismatic figure comparable to Khomeini. And above all, Iran represented an experiment: Iranians had not experienced extremist Islamic rule. By contrast, Saudi subjects have experienced it, under the reign of the Wahhabi Sa'uds — and they are, for the most part, sick of it.

But while Saudi Arabia need not go the way of Iran internally, the United States faces the serious threat of repeating its Iranian error in Saudi Arabia by remaining faithful to an alleged ally and questionable friend, and propping up a corrupt regime even as it collapses. That would be devastating for American credibility, and would tragically reinforce the Islamist claim that American power can only support oppressive rulers. U.S. intransigence in defending the most reactionary elements of the royal family could produce a less-repressive but much more anti-American successor government.

Since the Treaty of Versailles that, at least arguably, ended World War I on such humiliating terms for Germany that it eventually led to Nazism and World War II, “humiliation” has become a political and sociological cliché. But the lineup of terrorists now facing the West reverses the hierarchy of humiliation that launched World War II. Nazi Germany was a major world power, dominant in the European economy. And Italy and Japan were minor powers that had been victors in the first world war, but remained embarrassingly behind the other victors economically. All three coveted the influence and possessions of dominant Britain, France, Russia, and America.

All three chose war as a means of aggrandizement.

Today, the Palestinians may claim with at least some credibility that they have been humiliated. But the Iraq of Saddam Hussein was accommodated, not humiliated, after the Gulf War; and Saudi Arabia has never been humiliated.

Islamist extremism exists because of the desire of corrupt and oppressive rulers to maintain themselves in power. Thus, we should support the democratization of the Arab and Islamic countries. Democratization need not involve the West imposing its political model on these societies. Rather, the Western role should be to sweep aside the obstacles to modernization and democratization from within.

Above all, the liberation of these societies will be a liberation of Islam from Saudi-style corruption and oppression. An Islam liberated from the grip of Saudi Arabia could correct itself and defeat extremism on its own terms.